New rewilding project teaches tour guides to offer fresh look at travel

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Tour guides across the world are being taught about rewilding as part of a new training programme that aims to create economic opportunities within wilder landscapes.

The training is run by not-for-profit organisation Rewilding Europe, which is working to return nature to a wilder state across eight regions of Europe by removing human management and reintroducing certain species. This vision includes rejuvenating the tourism industry by attracting visitors to remote areas, such as the southern Carpathians in Romania or the Velebit mountains on the Croatian coast, with the possibility of encountering wild animals including lynx and wolves – and creating jobs within local communities.

Wolf photographed in the Bieszczady mountains. Photograph: Grzegorz Leśniewski

In 2017, Rewilding Europe set up the European Safari Company, a travel agency designed to bring tourists to its rewilding projects. It now runs 40 safari packages, including bison tracking in Poland’s Oder Delta and bear-watching in Croatia. Its operations manager, Aukje van Gerven, who is based in the Netherlands and is running the training programme, says tourism can help to replace the income once generated through extractive jobs, such as forestry.

“In all the rewilding areas we work in, there are villages and towns, [where] people [are] living and working,” she said. “If it goes wild, it means there shouldn’t be any more forestry there, and in most of them there’s a lot less hunting than in the past. So how do the people in that area survive?” For van Gerven, the training is not just about creating jobs in tourism, but teaching guides how to forge links between rewilded landscapes and the community.

“If I go wolf-watching with my clients,” she said, “am I literally just going wolf-trekking, or will I visit the local honey producer to see how they are using fencing to make sure the bears in the area are not eating the honey the bees are producing? Will I visit the local shepherd, to see how he’s protecting his sheep against wolves? It’s focused on economic sustainability within a wild area.”

The European Safari Company advertises bison tracking in Poland’s Oder Delta. Photograph: Daniel Mirlea

To start, trainees attend online webinars and can then apply to participate in a five-day field training programme, which is scheduled to take place later this year in Italy’s central Apennines. There is a third stage for more specialised training, including skills such as birding, photography and wildlife-tracking.

The programme’s first intake, of 40 students, started last October, with a second round of training now under way. A third round is scheduled for November. Rewilding Europe will measure the impact of its approach by surveying the tourists taken on by their graduates, and comparing that with tourist experiences from before the training.

While the programme focuses on Europe’s wild areas, the current round of trainees includes 50 students from 20 countries, including the US, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates.

Petra Draškovič Pelc, a guide and photographer from Slovenia, has taken part in Rewilding Europe’s training

Petra Draškovič Pelc is a guide and photographer from Slovenia who graduated after the first round of training. She works in the Kočevsko region, where she says nature has been left to return to a wilder state since the resettlement of the Gottschee people during the second world war. Lynx were reintroduced in 1973.

“I liked the idea of connecting to enthusiastic individuals who work in tourism across Europe, to bring new knowledge to my guests, and to explain nature and its functions better,” she said.

While the UK may have fewer wild carnivores, it still has a handful of trainees who hope to bring this rewilding approach to their work, including participants from Somerset, Cambridge and the Knepp Estate in West Sussex.

Female Eurasian lynx and kitten. Photograph: Staffan Widstrand

Knepp is among the best-known examples of rewilding in the UK: longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies now roam what was once a 1,400-hectare farm. Rina Quinlan, a self-described “large herbivore geek” who works there as a seasonal guide, is enrolled in the current training scheme. She is looking forward to learning about the ethics of wildlife tourism and how to tell better stories about rewilding to the tourists that [will eventually] visit the estate.

“With rewilding, it’s not just about the individual species, although that’s definitely a highlight of any tour,” she said. “I think this idea that you’re visiting this landscape – and that it’s part of a wider picture – is something I haven’t found in the UK, in terms of training.”

Rewilding Europe